In the predawn light, they looked like a medieval army standing beside their weapons on a boat bound for an invasion, Russian and Chinese speakers on the port side with a phalanx of West Indian-Americans and anglers from New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens, and as far away as Poughkeepsie astern and lining the starboard side with fishing rods at the ready.
All were twice their normal size, cowled and buttressed against the cold in layers of clothing. A light snow had fallen Sunday morning as the 86 fishermen boarded the Viking Starship long before the party boat’s 5 a.m. departure time. Many had been driving toward Montauk all night like moths to a flame that most people would consider cold, sickening, and pointless. After all, you can buy a lot of fish for the $120 Viking tariff, the cost of what was to be 13 hours tossed upon the cold winter Atlantic in hopes of catching cod and sea bass.
But they soldiered on before dawn en route to offshore, deepwater fishing grounds, to a number of shipwrecks northeast and later southeast of Block Island whose moldering hulks attract fish. They slept in the Starship’s chairs, drank beer or coffee, chain-smoked cigarettes. A few dropped Dramamine as steel-wool clouds began to brighten an iron-gray day — the Starship’s tropical-green trim seemed a sick joke — to no avail.
Two and a half hours later, they stood in the early morning light swaying to the Starship’s roll as her mates doled out the clam-bait ammunition and Captain Dave Marmeno set the anchors in 80 feet of water. The army of 86 murmured in different tongues, waiting shoulder to shoulder with baited hooks and visible breath for the captain’s order to send terminal gear to the bottom to attack the fish.
The first “drop” was dog-infested. A large pack of dogfish leaped on the clam baits. The close-quarter fishing and wind-against-tide sea condition combined to snarl lines. This caused Ray DiAnntonio and the rest of the mates to play a continuous game of cat’s cradle with birds nests of fishing line, hooks and all, while expertly calming impatient anglers with a balanced mix of humor and, depending on the complexity of the snarl, its opposite.
But then a sound, a whine, and laughter that brightened the gray clouds and charcoal sea. The whine was Billy Foster’s electric reel. He stood at the rail on the Starship’s aft quarter, starboard side. A wire connected his reel to a battery on the deck. The gizmo whined as it pulled a dogfish to the surface, while the others, by contrast, cranked and cranked their catch off the bottom. Heads turned, smiles erupted.
He was a Vietnam veteran, originally from Trinidad, a retired ironworker with Local 580. He had worked on “the pile,” the collapsed Twin Towers, for 11 months after Sept. 11. The reel cost $1,500, a birthday gift from his wife.
Captain Marmeno up-anchored to flee the dogs. The next drop was, “that’s what I’m talkin’ about,” as George Gibson from South Orange put it, lifting a fat sea bass over the rail. Anglers began boating sea bass, cod, ling, and an occasional pollack with regularity. The snarls, both physical and verbal, continued, but bonds among the anglers began to grow apace.
Out came the fish stories from trips gone by, “There I was,” and cigarettes, “Got a light?” and, backslapping, “Nice fish.” These were people for whom discomfort was okay, brothers and sisters in the wet and the cold and the total absence of terra firma, all in order to feel the tug, the vibration of a fish on the end of a line, lines that connected them to something more fundamental than what they’re attached to on a normal day.
The Starship moved again, and this time the lucky one was Gelu Pislaru, originally from Rumania, a land whose women were extremely beautiful, he said. He married one at the age of 20 — “or somebody else would have married her when I was away in the army.” They’ve been married for 23 years. Mr. Pislaru caught a 20-pound cod, a contender for the pool with a pot that exceeded $800. He grumbled, but remained stoic when the mate informed him his fish was disqualified. He was fishing with a three-hook rig, while pool rules limited the number of hooks to two.
Hours passed unnoticeably as they tend to do at sea, like a dream that’s sometimes bad, sometimes good, but a dream all the same.
The Starship steamed south to another successful drop. Coolers filled, gulls and gannets wheeled overhead in the 25-knot wind, and the sea was galloping with the broken crests known as white horses. Captain Marmeno had stayed late. The battle was over. Time to head home.
The mates began filleting the catch. Sharp knives flashed through the fish flesh in the waning light. A Chinese man with no English was told via hand signals that he would have to wait to fill his plastic bag from the bucket of fish racks — for soup stock perhaps. Anglers slept in the Starship’s rows of reclining chairs and overflowed onto the bunks below decks.
A former Coast Guard boatswains mate looked at his new wife in amazement. She had never been offshore. “I got seasick and she didn’t,” he said. “She caught a sea bass and a cod on the first drop.” You could tell it was a story bound to live on for years to come.